Cesario Padilla Figueroa by Lucy Popescu

Lucy Popescu

Cesario Padilla Figueroa

 

Honduras is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. When Honduras’s first female president, Xiomara Castro, was elected in November 2021, she promised to defend human rights. According to many lobby groups, she has largely failed to deliver. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has reported that there were 944 attacks against journalists and human rights defenders, including forty murders, in the country between January 2021 and September 2023.

The Honduran journalist Cesario Alejandro Félix Padilla Figueroa has endured nearly a decade of restrictions and persecution for exercising his right to freedom of expression. He has been harassed for his involvement in student protests and faced surveillance, detention and threats. In December 2014, Padilla Figueroa and five other students from the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH) were arbitrarily suspended after protesting against the privatisation of the university and calling for the democratisation of the institution’s governing bodies. They were readmitted two months later following a ruling by the Honduran Supreme Court of Justice.

Padilla Figueroa and colleagues subsequently founded the Human Rights Defence Committee to document human rights abuses occurring as a result of the protests. On 17 July 2015, after occupying a university building during a protest, Padilla Figueroa and fellow students Moisés David Cáceres and Sergio Luis Ulloa were charged with ‘usurpation’ of UNAH property under Article 227 of the Honduran Penal Code. In August, Padilla Figueroa reported that he had been tailed by two unknown armed men in his neighbourhood who had also been keeping watch over his home. The men made it clear that they intended to harm him. 

In June 2016, Padilla Figueroa and some of his fellow protesters reported that they had been subjected to unlawful surveillance by agents from the Technical Agency for Criminal Investigations (ATIC), who attempted to prevent the students from entering the university campus. Their defence lawyers submitted a complaint to the Public Prosecutor’s Office, claiming that the actions of the ATIC agents constituted an abuse of power as the students had not been accused of a crime that merited such surveillance. 

On 7 June 2017, Padilla Figueroa, Cáceres and Ulloa were convicted of ‘usurpation’ at UNAH. However, the sentence was not delivered to Padilla Figueroa as a written document for three years, making it impossible for the journalist to pursue appeals. At a hearing on 7 August, the Public Prosecutor’s Office reportedly requested a three-year sentence, along with other penalties. 

Shortly afterwards, the OHCHR stated: ‘The office expresses its grave concern regarding the ruling made in relation to the crime of “usurpation”, considering that on repeated occasions, the office has signalled – both publicly and in our discussions with judicial officials – that the use of this type of crime in the context of the criminalisation of social protest presents serious problems in light of international human rights standards.’

The conviction of the students was formally published three years later. In September 2020, it was announced that they had been found guilty of ‘illegal detention of public property’ and sentenced to three years in prison, forced labour while in prison, suspension of their rights and payment of damages to UNAH. They were unable to appeal the conviction for three years. 

In 2023, human rights lawyers submitted an application for Padilla Figueroa to be granted an amnesty. The request was rejected following an ad hoc hearing held on 29 January 2024. On 5 February, Padilla Figueroa’s lawyers filed an appeal. Padilla Figueroa is also facing a civil trial, which could result in his being forced to pay $187,000 in damages to UNAH, with non-payment potentially leading to a prison sentence.

PEN believes that Padilla Figueroa, Cáceres and Ulloa are being persecuted for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly, all of which are enshrined in the Honduran constitution, the American Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Honduras is a state party. ‘The case of Padilla Figueroa illustrates the machinery of impunity in Honduras and the barriers to accessing justice,’ said Romana Cacchioli, executive director of PEN International.

Readers might like to send appeals calling on the authorities of Honduras to overturn the conviction of Cesario Alejandro Félix Padilla Figueroa, which constitutes a violation of his right to freedom of expression and assembly, and urging them to comply with the determinations of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which has affirmed that ‘the right to publicly protest is an essential element of freedom of expression’. They might also like to call on the university authorities to secure a pardon for Padilla Figueroa and his co-defendants and to end the persecution of peaceful protesters. Appeals to be addressed to:

President Rebeca Lizeth Ráquel Obando

Supreme Court of Justice

Email: comunicaciones@poderjudicial.gob.hn

Twitter: @RebecaRaquelO

Dr Odir Fernández 

Rector of Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras 

Email: odir.fernandez@unah.edu.hn

Twitter: @UNAH_Rectory

His Excellency Ivan Romero-Martinez 

Honduran Embassy 

4th Floor, 136 Baker Street,

London W1U 6UD 

Fax: +44 20 7486 4550

E-mail: hondurasuk@lineone.net

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